Striving for social change: Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and HIV/AIDS in the Russian Federation
Department of International Organisation and International Relations University of Groningen Groningen, The Netherlands
A strong civil society, defined as "the space between the state, the market and the family" (Gellner), is commonly understood as a precondition for democracy. The concept has therefore been central in the discourse on post-Soviet transition. Since 1991, Western donor agencies have developed a great variety of programmes to assist the formation of civil society in former communist countries. From today's perspective, however, the outcomes of those external efforts to promote democracy and civil society in the post-Soviet space, can be regarded as meagre, as they apparently did not succeed to root the new ideas in society.
It would, however, be wrong to overlook the forms of civic engagement that in fact have emerged in Russia over the past two decades. Russian citizens have predominantly organized themselves around issues which directly affect themselves or their family members. In the context of a collapsing social system, many citizens have taken matters into their own hand and created organisations that respond to concrete social needs. In many fields of social policy, e.g. in the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Russian NGOs have become key actors and are today more and more accepted as partners of state institutions. The question is now, whether those organisations are able to contribute to a genuine Russian development of civil society.
This article will focus on Russian grass-root NGOs which are active in the field of HIV/AIDS, since they can serve as salient examples for civic engagement on social issues. Field work on AIDS-service NGOs has been conducted in three Russian regions: Tomsk, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad. From a theoretical perspective, the article aims to link the civil society approach to the debate on social movements in order to identify the capacities of NGOs in achieving social change. The paper will be based on empirical research conducted in the framework of my current PhD project on the role of NGOs in the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and thus aims to contribute to our understanding of social change and civil society development in Russia.